The speed with which Edwyn Collins returned to music after he suffered two brain haemorrhages and underwent cranial surgery in 2005 astonished many. Although somewhat of a one hit wonder in the US, Collins’s continued influence within the UK and among various indie groups meant that he had plenty of fans eager for new releases. In his newest album, Understated, Collins tells us that his renewed energy was not merely a symptom of his recovery, but rather a contributing factor, singing on “Baby Jean” that, “I got music too see me through/I got art to ease the pain.”
Pop and rock are still the driving forces behind Collins’s music, but his habit of combining apparently conflicting styles is taken to new levels here. Reggae guitar melodies, rock-n-roll drums and choir-like background vocals meet in “Dilemna” to create an overwhelming feeling of rejuvenation, a sensation common throughout the album. Some songs are more conventional, like the title track, which uses electric guitar, piano chords and punk-style percussion to create a sound familiar to fans of Collins’s earlier work.
Collins’s medical crisis undoubtedly impacted his singing, but by no means for the worse. According to the musician himself, he believes he’s actually improved – he told the UK newspaper Metro that “I actually think I sing a lot better now than I did on the early Orange Juice singles.” There’s less inflection in his voice and his lyrics are simpler and more repetitive than before, but this lends a raw, emotional vocality to his stylistic experimentation that was previously lacking in his music. On tracks like “Too Bad” and “Carry On, Carry On” Collins’s soulful voice is complemented effectively by an ensemble of background singers.
Seeing Collins will likely stay active for many years to come, Understated is an accurate indicator of the trajectory of his future work. Collins has proven his vigor, and the persistent broadening of his own musical boundaries demonstrated on Understated will hopefully continue in his next album. Collins’s singing has changed permanently, but whether or not this change was beneficial or not will depend on the listener’s perspective. Different is not always better; however, it would be best if his next album explores what would be then stale ideas. As his hell-and-back experience begins to haunt Collins less, his thematic focus may (and should) shift into new territory.
Understated will leave many listeners ambivalent, but it should also invite optimism as a sign of what is to come. Some songs on the album show improvement on even his most famous single, “A Girl Like You,” and there is a good chance Collins is only going to get better from now on.